Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

It’s not just porn: Net filter will limit culture and public debate

I had such high hopes for Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister. After the corruption of Richard-what free tv-Alston and luddite Coonan (not to mention the decidedly not tech-savy Howard), Conroy seemed a breath of fresh air. Having watched him operate in several years of Estimates hearings, he clearly knew his way around a PC Whilst asking questions to officials (when in opposition) he often was able to quickly call up relevant data to challenge claims made by wayward or mis-informed ministers or their public servants. His boss may have been a bit socially conservative, but he could tweet & sms easily. That Conroy under Rudd’s direction has taken Australia into such a embarassing and frankly authoritarian direction online is therefore a great shame.

Google baulks at Conroy’s call to censor YouTube
ASHER MOSES February 11, 2010

Google says it will not “voluntarily” comply with the government’s request that it censor YouTube videos in accordance with broad “refused classification” (RC) content rules. ..YouTube’s rules already forbid certain videos that would be classified RC, such as sex, violence, bestiality and child pornography. But the RC classification extends further to more controversial content such as information on euthanasia, material about safer drug use and material on how to commit more minor crimes such as painting graffiti. Google said all of these topics were featured in videos on YouTube and it refused to censor these voluntarily. It said exposing these topics to public debate was vital for democracy.

In an interview with the ABC’s Hungry Beast, which aired last night, Conroy said applying ISP filters to high-traffic sites such as YouTube would slow down the internet, “so we’re currently in discussions with Google about … how we can work this through”. “What we’re saying is, well in Australia, these are our laws and we’d like you to apply our laws,” Conroy said.
“Google at the moment filters an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Chinese government; they filter an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Thai government.”

Given that most people react badly to Tony Abbott’s desire of us to be more like New Zealand, comparisons to Thailand and China in terms of freedom of speech and governance are pretty unsavy. Equally, it’s rather amazing and somewhat sad that a US Multi-National corporation is at the moment a better defender of free speech than our own Minister for Communications. That’ll boggle the noodles of more than a few anti-capitalist types.

However, the Government’s “talks” with Google about Youtube content however highlight an important and often ignored point. The internet filter will not just be blocking Porn, and deliberately. Much has already been made of sites accidentally turning up on the ACMA filter list, but the government is also going to include other topics which it considers offensive. Not content with already making discussions of methods of suicide illegal in 2005, we will now see such bans included in the filter, along with a range of material which is classified RC such as more general euthanasia discussions, drug harm minimization and anything that seemingly features petty crimes. You can talk about this in person, you soon won’t be able to do it online.

There is much online that is horrific and ought not be seen by children much less the rest of us. And it’s this “policing the internet’s wild west” claim that the government has made the heart of its filter policy argument. But it’s not 1995, corporations run the most popular websites on the internet for profit and as such much of the internet already is filtered to be family friendly, especially sites like Youtube. Indeed, the internet is much like your local shopping mall. There’s probably an adult store in a side street, and if you go down the right alley (or wrong depending on your views) you’ll find someone who can sell you drugs or will rough you up a bit. People don’t need to be put on rails to make sure they avoid these areas, they do so themselves already. Most filtering online is however done not through clumsy firewalls, but by site designers and maintainers working hard to keep their content as they intended. Youtube already is filtered. You can’t watch porn or extremely violent material on it, and they are very quick at removing anything that seems disturbing or illegal. Most people are exposed to far more graphic scenes on the nightly news than on Youtube. Yet it seems even the commitment and attention by one of the largest IT companies in the world to a clean video site is not enough for the Rudd Government. That ACMA will try but fail to capture all illegal websites, or occasionally blacklist legitimate sites can be put down as technical issues. However in going to Youtube the government has shown its hand that it is seeking to restrict material that is considered by the vast majority of the community within the range of distasteful but not harmful communication.

The only hope now is that the Coalition maintains its position and votes down the filter. The Greens are strongly against it, so as long as Abbott’s populist and combative instincts trump his conservative instincts (the Howard government discussed very similar measures during its own time) then there will be no filter. It’s important not to slide into hyperbole and see this as a step towards totalitarianism or any such nonsense. Likewise the idiots at Anonymous with their Denial of Service attacks on Australian government websites have only succeeded in pissing off many in the press/political watchers who similarly oppose the filter, and in giving the government an easy target to attack “those who oppose this are on the side of pornographers and criminals”. The government is responding to a public concern, but in a way that shows very little knowledge of the environment they are attempting to shape and scant regard for individual liberties or responsibility.
My guess is that the Coalition will vote down the bill if it comes up before the election, and Rudd will abandon it once the Greens get the balance of power in the senate. It will die a slow lingering death. However, pressure needs to be kept up on the Opposition to ensure they see voting it down as the popular option. Still, this bill is a stain on our political democracy, and historically against the Rudd government.